Blame Farm Subsidies, Not Nutritionists, For America's Obesity Problem


Earlier this week, PolicyMic pundit Cameron English opined that federal dieticians are culpable for America's obesity epidemic. According to English, nutrition guidelines espoused by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ignorantly emphasize unhealthy, carbohydrate-heavy diets. While English is right to point a finger at governmental error, he's looking at the wrong policies: Blame for the country's obesity crisis should fall on agricultural subsidies in the farm bill. 

The farm bill is the unwieldy, recondite piece of legislation that defines how America grows and eats its food. The iteration of the bill that has governed our food regime since 2008 provides for $412 billion of spending, and most of it goes toward food stamps for poor Americans. But $60 billion has also been paid out to farmers in the form of agricultural subsidies, subsidies which have helped hook the U.S. on fattening, processed food.

The problem with the farm bill isn't the disbursement of subsidies per se; it's that the bulk of payments are forked over to growers of a few huge commodity crops — mostly corn, wheat, soybeans — in a handful of Midwestern congressional districts. (You can guess the reasons for this, I'm sure — they involve the outsized political influence of the Big Agriculture lobby, venal congressmen trying to fill campaign coffers, and the indifference of the rest of the legislature.) Additionally, while most cattle ranching isn't highly subsidized itself, the beef industry is still among the primary beneficiaries of government largess, as low crop prices allow ranchers to feed their livestock cheap grain and so keep their own costs down. A subsidy for corn growers, therefore, serves as a de facto subsidy to the beef industry. 

And, while some subsidies represent insurance in the event of crop failure, a large proportion take the form of direct payment for acreage planted — i.e., farmers get paid to plant no matter how much money they're already making. Unsurprisingly, then, the allocation of subsidies tends to be highly iniquitous: Since 1995, 74% of payments have gone to the largest and wealthiest 10% of farming operations, even as 62% of farms received no subsidies at all. 

While corn growers are raking in taxpayer dollars, fruit and vegetable farmers (termed "specialty crops" by the twisted language of the farm bill) are not allowed to receive any direct payments whatsoever — the result of lobbying by enormous, consolidated fruit and vegetable companies. Understanding why these companies would lobby against subsidies to their own industry is, like most of the farm bill's provisos, guaranteed to make your brain hurt; suffice to say that the rules are in the interests of Big Ag and despised by small and mid-sized farmers of fruit and veggies. More to the point, it produces a glaring hypocrisy: USDA nutritionists recommend a vegetable-heavy diet that is totally incompatible with how federal subsidies are actually allocated.    

The profligate handouts to grain have led to overproduction: Farmers this decade produce nearly 4,000 calories per American per day, or 500 more than they did only thirty years ago. Some of this overproduction winds up overseas, undercutting farmers in developing countries and leading to famine; some of it winds up in our gas tanks in the form of ethanol, an environmental disaster in its own right. But a lot of it ends up in the bellies of Americans: We eat 200 calories more per day than we did in the 1970s.

Why do we eat more? Because agricultural and food processing companies have figured out ingenious ways to sneak their overproduction into our bodies. Food laureate Michael Pollan has spent a career revealing how companies turn excess grain into calories: By feeding corn to cattle to produce cheap hamburgers, by blowing formerly 8-ounce soft drinks into 20-ouncers, and by adding high fructose corn syrup to just about everything. And the really big bucks are in transforming corn into "value-added" products, the kind of packaged, chemically-altered food with 70 unpronounceable ingredients listed on the wrapper found in supermarkets and bodegas throughout America. 

Flooding shelves with highly processed, calorie-rich products has been how the food industry makes its money, and it's arguably the biggest contributor to obesity. After all, people don't shop with a battered copy of the USDA's food guidelines in hand, consulting with federal dietary standards every time they reach for a loaf of bread. Instead, they buy what's cheapest, what provides the biggest caloric bang for their buck, what they can most efficiently feed their families on. The USDA's food standards, imperfect though they may be, don't call for a Big Mac and a Coke per day. Yet that's what we eat, because those products are easier to find and cheaper to buy than the recommended fruit and vegetables. 

Fortunately, distortionary subsidies to commodity crop growers might not be long for this world. The farm bill is up for renewal in 2012, and in these days of fiscal conservatism, billion-dollar Big Ag subsidies are suddenly unpopular. Although the details of this next farm bill are being finagled behind closed doors, there's talk that direct payments to farmers will be eliminated. Not only would the end of direct payments help prevent agricultural overproduction, it would also favor fruit and vegetable growers, who have forever survived without federal assistance and so might be better prepared to compete in a subsidy-free world. Then again, the political power of Big Ag might just trump the austerity zeitgeist: As pundit Aaron Wee noted on PolicyMic last month, direct payments may simply be replaced with additional crop insurance, leaving unchanged the net cost of subsidies. 

Reducing agricultural subsidies should be a cross-aisle issue: Environmentalists hate Big Agriculture, and Republican politicians hate unnecessary government expenditures (except to campaign contributors within their own congressional districts, which is why we have the subsidies in the first place). While cutting out subsidies wouldn't be a panacea for the obesity issue, it would certainly ameliorate some of the systemic hypocrisy and perversity that has made us overweight. Here's to hoping our next farm bill looks substantially different than the last one. 

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